Conversation of Interest:
“People can choose to forget but the photograph cannot”
with Zanele Muholi
South Africa is one of the first countries on the continent to lawfully protect queer people through its Constitution. However it is still one of the most intolerant countries in the world.
According to the University of Cape Town’s Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit, homophobic discourse (shared in homes, through social media, in churches, schools, and popular culture) helps ensure that queer narratives are ill-documented in the mainstream. Often perceived and platformed either as perversely deviant or in their capacity as victims of queerphobic violence, the LGBTQ+ community is perpetually othered by the lack of humanising records. Combating this, visual activist Zanele Muholi’s practice is dedicated to making compelling and subversive work.
Starting with the self, Muholi’s documenting practice is informed by their lengthy relationship with self-portraiture. “Nothing is as difficult as taking self-portraits because then you are confronting yourself in ways that are not easy. As photographers, we tend to look at other people more than we do ourselves. We like saying, “I like being behind the camera” but have no idea what being in front of the camera involves. I make it a point to remind myself what it feels like by meeting with myself,” they explain.
Then on addressing the dismissal of queer life through erasure, Muholi offers a sure response, “There is nothing that doesn’t forget like a photograph. People forget. People can choose to forget but the photograph cannot.”
The life force of a living and growing record, Muholi’s practice could be considered archival. “You’re touching a subject matter that really pains me as a person who produces work that, if not well kept, could fall into corrupt or uncaring hands,” sighs Muholi whose wishes revolve around access.
Conventionally housed in a sanitized (academic) space to be accessed by academics who understand categories, classifications, glossaries and permissions, the archive concept is too narrow for Muholi. Pleading their case through a series of questions, Muholi asks, “Whose work gets to be archived? Who are the archivists? Where is the archive? How is it funded and resourced? Who owns it? How far do we even understand it in terms of being accessed by the public? I ask because archives have a way of keeping certain materials embargoed.”
Circling back to their incessant need to platform queer narratives, practices like Muholi’s evade ideas of ownership. Instead with its endorsement seems to come the responsibility to ensure its visibility. Just as a line in Mark Gevisser’s book, The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers puts it, “We didn’t fight a revolution to stay inside.”
This conversation is an excerpt from the FNB Art Joburg’s First Person video series.